U-Boats against Canada: German Submarines in Canadian Waters


360 pages
Contains Illustrations, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-7735-0584-0




Reviewed by S.R.G. Brown

Shaun R.G. Brown was a military historian in Kitchener, Ontario.


Michael Hadley, Chairman of the Department of Germanic Studies at the University of Victoria, and a captain in the Canadian naval reserve, has written a well-documented, thoroughly researched account of the German U-boat incursions into Canadian waters from 1940 to 1945.

Hadley focuses on the exploits of the U-boats and, to a lesser extent, the Canadian response. He has referred to a wide range of primary documents, including the U-boat War Diaries, the War Diaries of Admiral Karl Donitz and the German Naval War Office, the Operational Records of the Royal Canadian Navy and Air Force and those of the Royal Navy’s Operational Intelligence Centre, and the espionage files of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

The result is some truly fascinating revelations about the landing of spies on Canadian shores and the construction of a clandestine, fully automated weather station, not discovered until 1981. In a meticulous, somewhat laborious fashion, Hadley covers all the attacks on Allied warships and merchantmen in Canadian coastal waters and the contiguous northwest Atlantic combat zone. The reader is left with little doubt as to the threat posed by the U-boats during the time in question. The extent and seriousness of the threat, unfortunately, are never made entirely clear. A careful reading of the statistical table provided on page 301 of the text reveals that in 1942, of the 7,542 ships convoyed through Canadian waters, 149 were sunk (2% of the total). This was the darkest year for Allied shipping during the war; two years later, of the 9,807 ships convoyed, just seven were sunk, or a mere .07%. Given these statistics, there is little doubt that the Canadian government and the naval commanders were correct in assigning the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the coastal waters a secondary and subsidiary role to that of Canada’s total war effort, this despite local Quebec politicians’ protestations to the contrary. The author’s extremely pointed criticisms of the government’s and naval authorities’ response, therefore, is all the more confusing. The U-boat commanders are portrayed as cool, apolitical professionals, completely detached from the dirty politics of their homeland. The Canadians, conversely, are characterized as inept amateurs, poorly equipped by the government, thinking only of domestic expedients. The whole question of how a small liberal democracy responds to an external threat by the aggression of a totalitarian state begs for a more balanced conclusion. Hadley is quite right when he assents that Canada was completely unprepared for coastal defence, let alone total war. But as it turned out, which country was prepared? Certainly none of the democracies were and, more importantly, neither were they prepared to exhort their people into an ideological struggle based on lebensraum and racial purity.

Hadley has provided the reader with a factual account of what happened in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and coastal waters during the years of U-boat incursions, and to this extent the book is a fine example of careful and well-documented research. But to the historian and to the discriminating reader alike, mere facts are not enough; one must always be prepared to look into the deep waters of cause and effect.


Hadley, Michael L., “U-Boats against Canada: German Submarines in Canadian Waters,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 27, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/36251.